A Skynyrd guitar riff licked the back of my neck as Tampa shrank in the rearview mirror. It was seven-PM on Christmas Eve. Me and the new guy were headed to Apollo Beach to talk to a degenerate gambler that owed my boss money.
The new guy sat in the passenger seat, his knees high as the dash, head touching the roof. His arms crossed over his chest were as big around as my thighs. “What you got for a weapon?” he asked, holding a bat in his lap.
“My hands are my weapons,” I joked, tucking my fingers like knife blades. My insurance was a .38 tucked into the waistband of my Levi’s.
Colored lights hung along roofs in this neighborhood. Some houses had wreaths on their front doors. Green grass and palm trees never looked right with Santa Claus.
“There,” the new guy pointed to a cinderblock house with a flat roof and no Christmas lights.
We parked on the street. “Leave the bat,” I said.
We walked up the driveway behind a pickup. The lawn was shaggy. Plants and shrubs wove together. An old bicycle rusted in the weeds next to a warped plastic kiddie pool.
The new guy held the flashlight as I picked the back door lock.
Inside the kitchen, ammonia mixed with the smell of bacon grease – like dunking your head into a urinal at a truck stop.
We found Eddie Joyner sitting on a couch in the living room, his face lit by a lamp with a dim bulb and no shade. Shadows framed fear in his eyes. His shirtless torso was pale. His neck and arms were tan. Next to him sat a nickel-plated .45. I didn’t move. Reaching for mine would mean he’d reach for his.
Instead, Eddie shook a Salem from his pack and said, “Howdy, boys,” as if he’d invited us. He fumbled with a matchbook. Struck once, twice, about a dozen times until he threw the useless match toward the ashtray on the floor beside a picture in a frame with broken glass. In the picture, Eddie wore a suit and smiled. Next to him were two kids and a woman pretty enough to be in movies. His hands shook as he tugged another match. He could’ve mixed paint with nerves like that. The new guy reached over with the flame of a lighter. Eddie’s cigarette lit and he exhaled into the air. “Thanks.”
A breeze rushed through the vegetation outside and entered a gap in the curtains with the glow of the neighbor’s red and green lights. Eddie’s puffing filled the room with smoke smells. He talked of the wife, the kids, the house he lost.
After crushing out his cigarette, he reached for the gun. Before I could grab mine, the new guy plowed into Eddie and drove into him like an offensive lineman – pushed until Eddie was halfway up the wall. The pistol fell to the floor. The new guy pressed a forearm into Eddie’s throat hard enough to dent the wall with his brainstem.
I pulled Eddie’s sweaty arm and sat him on the couch. “Let’s calm down. Talk this out.” The room got quiet again. The breeze through the plants outside sounded like applause. “My boss just sent us to remind you payment’s due.”
Eddie shoved his hand between the couch cushions, came up with another pistol, put it to his temple.
With the metallic click of the hammer cocking, Eddie moved the barrel from his temple to under his chin and painted the wall with his brains.
The report deafened me, but I couldn’t look away from the gore trailing down the wall. “Fuck!” I shouted. Death never shocked me, but this would displease my boss. “Let’s go.”
The new guy grabbed my arm. “We can’t just leave him. We’ve got to lay him down and cover his face.”
I said, “Why not just leave the cops a signed greeting card?”
As we walked out, the new guy said, “No one deserves to be sprawled and uncovered like that.”
The new guy was a sucker. He was right, but he was also a big sucker.